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Rediscover STEAM

Caroline Herschel, First Professional Female Astronomer

Caroline Lucretia Herschel’s contributions to astronomy were numerous and life-long. She was a woman of great respect and acclaim, with a particular feature of her disposition being her dislike for accepting any praise, for fear that it would detract from her brother’s work. This honest humility was part of what made her such an incredible woman, as well as the contributions she made to astronomy without a formal education. However, while an admirable trait, it highlights the issue surrounding how women have had to devalue their own accomplishments, and do not receive the same level of recognition as men for their work. During her lifetime, she would go on to pioneer several “firsts” for women. These include being the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to be recognized as a professional astronomer, and lastly, along with Mary Somerville, she would be amongst the first women to be made honorary members of the Royal Society.

Caroline Herschel was born on March 16, 1750, in Hanover, Germany, where she was one of six children to Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Her parents had very different views on what was appropriate for their children. Her father, who was a man with no formal education, tried his hardest to push for a sound education for his children. Her mother, on the other hand, was vehemently against her two daughters receiving the same education as her four sons. As a consequence, in her early years, Caroline received no formal education, and instead, she was instructed in basic household chores, as was deemed appropriate for women of the time. Despite this, Caroline showed a desire for knowledge, and her father tried to work around the circumstances by taking her out at night and showing her stars and constellations. Tragically, when she was 10 years old, Caroline contracted typhus, and while she did recover, it stunted her growth, leaving her at 4 feet 3 inches tall. However, throughout her life, this never posed an issue for her. She remained essentially a servant for her mother until 1772, until her brother, William Herschel, took her to Bath, England with him, where he had established himself as a musician. He began to tutor her in mathematics, while she trained to be a professional singer.

During her stay with William, she worked as a musician and attended to him in between his burgeoning pursuit of astronomy and his tutoring of her. As she got more involved in his work, she began to assist him further with his astronomy, and she focused her own studies on spherical trigonometry, as to assist him with his calculations. Inevitably her role shifted from purely a caretaker to someone actively engaged in astronomy. After William discovered the planet Uranus, in 1781, he was given a salary of £200 annually, by King George III, to work full time as an astronomer. Caroline was responsible for working through the laborious calculations to condense astronomical observations to aid William, and she did so meticulously and with a high degree of proficiency. In conjunction with her work for William, she scanned the sky methodically with her own telescope and made her own observations. However, while working with William, she did not have much time for her own work, but, due to her role in his work, in 1787, Caroline was given £50 annually and recognized officially as Willam’s assistant. This event marked the first time that a woman was given a role as a professional astronomer.

“Caroline Herschel discovered or independently observed some 14 star clusters and galaxies, all of which are suitable for small telescopes and binoculars.”
Image Credits: Hunter Wilson (NGC 205, 7789, 6819 and 253. NGC 7380 courtesy of Adam Block. All others: Aladin Sky Atlas / DSS2

While she devoted the majority of her time to supporting her brother’s work, Caroline Herschel made her own noteworthy contributions to astronomy. From 1786–97, Caroline cataloged 8 new comets, then switched her focus to cross-referencing the catalog of constellations produced by John Flamsteed. Throughout this process, she discovered 560 new stars, which had been omitted, and published an index to Flamsteed’s catalog of fixed stars, which was sent to the Royal Society. She also served a pivotal role in the education of her nephew, John Herscehl, William’s son. Thanks to her tutoring, John was accepted into Cambridge and became a renowned astronomer in his own right. She supported his work as she supported her brothers, and in the process of doing so, cataloged 2,500 nebulae and numerous star clusters. Her efforts resulted in her being awarded the gold medal from the Royal Society, as well as being made an honorary member in 1828. This was not the end of her achievements, as she also received the Gold Medal of Science from the King of Prussia, and received honorary membership from the Royal Irish Academy. Beyond this, she was immensely respected in the scientific field, and many acclaimed individuals, like Gauss, visited her in her home in Hanover. In 1889, a minor planet was named Lucretia in her honor, as well as, later on, the periodic comet: 35P/Herschel-Rigollet.

by Laura Jewsbury

References

Swain, Kelley. “The first paid female astronomer in history.” Royal Museums Grenwich. 2021, www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/caroline-herschel

O’Connor, J J, and E F Robertson. “Caroline Herschel — Biography.” Maths History, 2020, mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Herschel_Caroline/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Caroline Herschel | Biography, Discoveries, & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Caroline-Lucretia-Herschel

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